Leigh Parise: Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? Welcome to “Evidence First,” a podcast from MDRC that explores the best evidence available on how to improve the lives of people in poverty. I’m your host, Leigh Parise.
Most employment programs aim to place people into jobs, but that alone is not enough to help workers advance in the labor market. MyGoals is a unique employment coaching program that helps participants set and achieve goals to promote career growth. Developed by Dr. Richard Guare and Colin Guare, the executive-skills-based coaching model used in MyGoals allows coaches to work with participants on their executive skills—or the mental skills used to execute tasks—in order to help them succeed. Executive skills include things like emotional control, stress tolerance, time management, organization, mental flexibility, persistence, and others. Working on these skills can help participants successfully navigate the labor market, acquire occupational credentials, perform well at a job, and advance at work.
MyGoals is part of a careful study to determine whether it’s truly effective. In the meantime, to learn more about the MyGoals coaching model and how the program has adapted since the start of the pandemic, I spoke with two MyGoals coaches: Shirley McGee at the Houston Housing Authority and Ashley Coston at the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. Ashley and Shirley, thanks so much for joining me today. Ashley, I would love for you to say a little bit about how the coaching in MyGoals differs from case management, which might be something that people listening are familiar with.
Ashley Coston: Coaching is more of a client- or person-driven model. Whereas case management you’re told what to do, you’re given directives, you’re given instructions, and you’re given a timeframe to have those things done. Coaching is a little bit different where the person is in the driver’s seat, that’s what we always try to use. We’re passengers in this journey, but you’re the driver. So, we kind of let the person decide what should be considered a goal and what is a milestone. If the person comes to you and says, “I think I really want this job,” coaching to us is: “Okay, well, let’s research that job so you can see what is required for that job.” Whereas case management would be: “You need a diploma, you don’t have that. So, you need to get that. You need this. You don’t have that.” We sort of urge or push the participant to just do their own research, decide if it’s a good fit for you. Decide if it’s something that fits into your life.
Leigh Parise: Thanks so much. That sounds like something really all of us could use some additional support with. Shirley, are there any examples that you could share with us to really help listeners understand what this looks like in practice?
Shirley McGee: I’ve had a participant that I’ve worked with for many months, many months. Just not having a driver’s license so that she can move forward to get employment was a challenge for her. So, we had to work through that. We talked about what that looked like. It’s not so simple just to go show up at the [Department of Public Safety] office to get the license. Sometimes our participants owe fines and fees that they can’t afford to pay. It’s a challenge. So we have to look for resources. This particular young lady, we had to find a program that helped clear those surcharges—because when you don’t have driver’s license, and you drive, and you get stopped, you get a ticket. You don’t show up for court, you get another ticket for failure to appear. And all of these surcharges tend to, well, in her case, they compounded and they kept compounding and she owed a considerable amount of fees that she could not pay. But she needed her driver’s license.
I found out that there is an indigent program that the Texas Department of Public Safety has. With this program, they have to complete an application, submit it to the state, they review it, and then if it’s accepted, then they actually clear these charges. I think her fees were about $800 or plus, and she was actually able to get those fees cleared.
Now this is a process. This is why coaching is important because things don’t just happen overnight.
Leigh Parise: Can you say a little more about the goals versus milestones that you work with people on?
Ashley Coston: A goal is something that will take a little bit more time to achieve. A goal would be something similar to: “I want to become a registered nurse.” Well, we know that there are several steps before you can get there so that would be considered a long-term goal. Whereas a milestone would be getting your GED because without that you can’t apply to a nursing program. So those milestones are smaller things that you see a result quicker.
I’ve had a participant have issues with time management and cooking for her children. We created some milestones to plan meals daily. Those small things it got to the larger goal, which they don’t eat out. And that was her biggest money-snatcher was eating out. So, it’s just separating and categorizing those short-term things that you can see immediate change and those long-term things that take a little bit more effort.
Leigh Parise: That really feels like something that I think probably anybody, especially right now, can really find valuable as a way of helping to plan some things in their life. So, I know that MyGoals is unique, and it’s focused on executive skills, which means that coaches help participants really understand their own executive skills, which can help participants decide whether certain types of jobs might be a good fit for them. Can you tell me a little bit more about how that actually plays out in your work with people?
Ashley Coston: Executive skills are actually those skills that people don’t think much about, and especially the population that we serve, because a lot of our population has kind of sort of got along to get along. They handled things as they come to them. So it’s never the aspect of planning, but I think the executive skills have forced people to think about things in a different way. In the beginning of enrollment, we do the executive skills questionnaire where we can kind of sort of gauge where someone is. But until you do that, people don’t realize that they have an issue with time management. Even though they’ve been fired for being late from every job, it doesn’t click to them until we say, “Okay, well, this was your score in time management.” Then they’ll have an a-ha moment where they say, “Oh, I didn’t even know what the executive skill was.”
Do you clean? Do you have time management? How is your metacognition? What’s a stressor? How’s your stress tolerance? It’s so unique because I’ve never seen another program that utilizes those skills to assess a person. They ask people questions, but they don’t get to the why.
Shirley McGee: And just to put my participant at ease, I also take the very same thing, the executive skill assessment, and I share mine with them to let them know these are my weaker skills, and these are my strengths. And just like I have strengths and weaknesses, you may have them as well, but we’ll have a discussion about them, and we’ll work through these skills and try to strengthen the ones that need strengthening.
Ashley Coston: I think going over the executive skills multiple times during the life of the study has also created a situation where they can see progress, because the things change over the time. I’ve been with some of these people for three years. How they answered initially is not how they answer today, which is great. And they’re able to share the executive skills with their children and also implement them. That’s what makes it unique is that it’s something that you can master; you can also teach.
Leigh Parise: Right. That’s a good way to think about it. You mentioned stress tolerance. What are some of the other skills that you focus on?
Shirley McGee: Whether it’s time management, where you’re late all the time. It could be response inhibition because you’re procrastinating. You don’t get on your tasks right away. You don’t start. You know how we’ll put it off, thinking we got lots of time. When they come back to this session, they’re telling me whether or not they were able to complete their goal. If they did, I ask them, “How did you go about doing it?” And then if they tell me that they didn’t, then I’m like, “Okay, so let’s unpack this. Tell me what happened.”
Ashley Coston: Stress tolerance is definitely one, planning and prioritization, time management is huge. It’s so huge that during the beginning of the study, we used to have time management campaigns where we would offer incentives if people could get to their sessions on time.
Leigh Parise: I know there’s sort of a dynamic relationship between the coaches and the creator of the model used in MyGoals, Dr. Guare. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that process has been like?
Shirley McGee: Dr. Guare did develop this coaching model, this executive skill coaching model. And he initially gave us some resources. We had workbooks, we had materials that we could rely on, but we visited the MDRC training center several times. And we met with him and his team. We were trained. We were trained on this coaching style, this coaching model—like if I have a difficult situation, or a difficult client, or I’m stuck, because sometimes you just get stuck. The participant is stuck, because really they have to arrive at their plan of action. We’re not here to prescribe anything to them, but then we do case conferencing. We have an opportunity to bring cases, hard cases. For me, participants that have mental health issues, some of them have some really unique disorders and what have you, things that I’ve not ran across before. It’s helpful for me to share this with Dr. Guare, and he sheds light on it and he tells me how I can bring it back into the coaching model and what we can do. We do get resources from them.
Leigh Parise: And what has your experience been with being part of a study and implementing this complex, multifaceted model?
Ashley Coston: It was definitely a huge transition for me, initially, because I’m a person who understood the need for directness. I understand that I may have to tell Miss Smith that Miss Smith needs to get a diploma. Miss Smith needs to get her ID. I come from the background where you’re told. I never came from a background where it’s suggested, but it’s optional. Initially I was like, “This is never going to work. This is crazy. I can’t believe this.” After sitting on it and digesting it, I thought to myself: “Maybe this will work. Maybe we need to stop telling people what to do. Maybe telling people what to do is not effective because they’re not doing it anyway?”
But the relationship with MDRC has been a relationship of nurturing. I think that they have really nurtured us and given us all the tools that we need to implement the model. And I also think that they’ve been really receptive to what we have to say with regards to how it’s implemented. I know I’ve said I’ve been very vocal early on and I’ve made it clear that the population that Houston serves is not the population that Baltimore serves. Baltimore needs a different type of something because our people here are different. And they’ve been receptive to that, and they’ve made tweaks and adjustments for Baltimore. So I appreciate the relationship with MDRC because without their support, this wouldn’t be possible.
Shirley McGee: All of this information and resources and support and training is really key. And it’s just been excellent.
Leigh Parise: I’m so glad to hear that. Can you say a little bit about how you had to adapt what you’re doing, how MyGoals had to adapt during the pandemic?
Shirley McGee: The office was shut down. We had to rely on remote coaching, doing telephone coaching, video chatting. And also a lot of our participants were kind of in crisis mode too, because this pandemic hit us hard and heavy. So, we as coaches, we too had to have some crisis coaching. Dr. Guare, he has been there, supportive with us. And we’ve had meetings and training around this pandemic. A lot of our customers, they became unemployed because they couldn’t get to work. Their place of business was shut down. So, our participants, they were dealing with a lot, I mean a whole lot. And then on top of that, you’re unemployed, you’re trying to navigate the state unemployment system that was constantly crashing. And they were worried about having a source of income, trying to get that claim filed. Just getting food and supplies became a goal.
Ashley Coston: We’ve had to adapt tremendously because we have an older population who was not tech savvy. “I don’t know how to work this”—that’s the key phrase. I even sent out YouTube tutorials about, “Hey, this is how you use Zoom.” And a lot of my participants have said that it helped them with their doctor’s appointments because they were missing [virtual] doctor’s appointments because they didn’t know how. It actually gave them a little bit more independence, which is what the program is about, because they had to go in and schedule their own sessions with me. It’s really forced everyone on both ends to be more accountable, because in this environment everyone has so many other things going on and you just have to prioritize, “Hey, I have a meeting.” So, they’ve been doing that. They actually missed less sessions now than they did before COVID, which is crazy to me. I guess because it’s a little more convenient. They don’t have to go anywhere. They don’t need bus fare because that was an issue before. All you have to do is just log on and I can see you and you can see me.
I also think they’re eager for interaction. I have a lot of participants who are really going through depression because they’re alone. So that’s been an adaptation, too, adapting to the fact that we can’t really move around like we used to or do the things we used to do. So, I think meeting with me is kind of like a highlight. It always was because it’s me [laughs], but meeting with me now is a highlight because I’m a sounding board. They can say, “Hey, I got this done.” And they’ve actually completed more things during COVID.
Leigh Parise: I think it makes a lot of sense that the participants are especially appreciative of the interactions with you, because your role is really to be someone who’s supporting them. And given everything that’s happening in the world right now, having more people in your life who are doing that, I imagine that feels really helpful. So I really appreciate it. This has been a great conversation. It’s so valuable, I think, for everyone to be able to hear about your experiences and hear your voice. Thanks so much for joining the discussion today, Ashley and Shirley.
To learn more about MyGoals, visit mdrc.org.
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